As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress granted official statehood to California on September 9, 1850. Explore nine surprising facts about California, 165 years after it became the 31st state in the Union.
1. California’s name is derived from a bestselling novel.
In 1510, Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo penned “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (“The Deeds of Esplandián”), a novel in which Amazon-like warriors who lived on the island of California, a paradise that abounded in gold and precious stones, aided the protagonist Esplandián. The story was so popular that when Spanish explorers under the command of Hernan Cortes landed on what they believed to be an island on the Pacific coast, they named it California after Montalvo’s mythical island.
2. Sacramento wasn’t California’s original state capital.
When California entered the Union in 1850, San Jose served as its initial state capital, but legislators quickly grew dissatisfied with their accommodations and in 1852 accepted an offer to move 60 miles north to Vallejo. To the lawmakers’ surprise, however, they arrived in Vallejo to find their new home still under construction. After an unsuccessful week of trying to do business amid the din of construction, California’s legislators moved inland to Sacramento to complete their session. After a brief return to Vallejo and a stop in Benicia, the state capital finally settled permanently in Sacramento in 1854.
3. California once declared itself an independent country—for a month.
On June 14, 1846, American settlers in Sonoma rose up against the Mexican authorities who governed the territory and declared the establishment of the independent California Republic. The rebels fashioned a makeshift flag with a lone red star and a crude drawing of a grizzly bear. Unbeknownst to the leaders of what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt, however, the United States had already declared war on Mexico, and when American Commodore John D. Sloat seized Monterey and raised the American flag over the city, the rebels gave up their notion of independence only weeks after it began and declared their allegiance to the United States.
4. The grizzly bear on the California state flag was modeled after one captured by William Randolph Hearst.
In 1889 newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst dispatched one of his journalists, Allen Kelly, to capture him a wild grizzly bear that he could put on display in San Francisco. Although Kelly had no hunting experience, he managed to lead an expedition that netted his boss an elusive grizzly, which had all but disappeared from the state by that time. Hearst named the 1,200-pound animal Monarch and put him on display in San Francisco’s Woodward’s Gardens. After Monarch died in 1911, his pelt was stuffed and put on display at the California Academy of Sciences. When California decided that same year to honor the Bear Flag Revolt by replicating the rebels’ banner, Monarch served as the model for illustrators. The grizzly bear is now extinct in California.
5. Slavery nearly split California in two soon after it achieved statehood.
California entered the Union as a free state under the Compromise of 1850. Pro-slavery Southerners who had moved into the southern half of the state, however, advocated for seceding from California and forming their own state in which slavery would be legal. The secessionists gained the support of Spanish-speaking residents who thought the state’s tax and land laws unfair. In 1859, the state legislature passed an act signed by Governor John B. Weller that would have broken off the area of the state south of the 36th parallel as the Territory of Colorado. More than 75 percent of voters in the proposed territory approved the measure. However, Congressional authorization needed for the measure to take effect never came, and the matter faded away with the outbreak of the Civil War.
6. During the Civil War, Californians marched to Texas to fight Confederate rebels.
In 1862, the 1,500 men of the “California Column” who volunteered for the Union cause embarked on a march east to push back Confederate rebels from Texas who had crossed over into the territory of New Mexico. On a 900-mile trek to El Paso, Texas, the Californians skirmished with both Confederate rebels and Apache warriors under the command of Cochise. The advance of the California Column caused the Texans to retreat, and the Union forces occupied towns and forts in west Texas to keep them at bay.
7. California has both the highest and lowest point in the continental United States.
The snowcapped summit of Mount Whitney—the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet—is just under 85 miles away from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
8. Dead people are no longer welcome in San Francisco.
When land became more precious and concerns about public health increased in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, the city outlawed burials. In 1912, San Francisco went a step further and evicted its dead. Many of them were moved to the adjacent municipality of Colma, where today the deceased residents outnumber the living ones by over 1,000 to 1. The rubble of San Francisco’s old tombstones is still being used in civic construction projects.
9. Oil built Los Angeles.
A half-century after the discovery of gold and silver caused the population of California to boom, huge oil fields were discovered underneath the small town of Los Angeles in the 1890s. By 1930, a forest of oil derricks dotted the Los Angeles area, and the state was pumping one-quarter of the world’s petroleum output. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, there are still more than 3,000 active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles County, many of them operating in the middle of residential neighborhoods and retail developments.